Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Documentary Theory or the Graf-Welhausen Theory (Part 2)...

In this part of coming to understand the Documentary Theory, we continue briefly tracing its historical background. It important to have this knowledge because it gives us the context to help evaluate whether the GWDT is valid or not.

The Reformation was the event that shook the Christian world to its core. It is interesting that Robert and Feuillet don’t even mention the Reformation[1] (even though they are obviously Catholic writers), and Harrison (a Protestant) briefly mentions the Reformation by discussing the position of the main reformers in relation to the Old Testament[2]. He makes a single comment that in this writer’s opinion is extremely important. He says,
The importance of the Reformation for Biblical criticism lay not so much in concern for the historical or literary processes involved in the formulation of the Biblical canon as in a continued insistence upon the primacy of the simple grammatical meaning of the text in its own right, independent of any interpretation by ecclesiastical authority[3].

In my opinion, Harrison drastically underestimates (and misunderstands or misrepresents) the true impact of the Protestant Reformation upon Biblical criticism and exegesis. He doesn’t mention that for fifteen centuries of Church history Biblical interpretation did rely on ecclesiastical authority just as the Lord Jesus Christ intended it. In contrast to Harrison and Robert and Feuillet, I believe the Protestant Reformation was the crucial event in modern Biblical scholarship and formation of the GWDT because it was Luther’s rejection of the authority of the Ecumenical Councils in Leipzig in 1519[4] and his rejection of the Magisterium’s role in Scriptural interpretation[5] in An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate that set the stage for the Enlightenment. The rejection of the Magisterium as sole interpreter of Scripture[6] and the personal interpretation that follows from that position completely changed the landscape of Biblical exegesis. The protection that the Magisterium affords would have ensured a more measured approach to Biblical criticism. Many may disagree and state that it was exactly the fact that exegesis could be separated from ecclesial authority that led to many advances. True, the advances may have come much more quickly. However, the damage done is still being felt as so many have had their faith in the Scriptures destroyed by modern exegesis. Once one divides exegesis from the authority of the Church, exegesis will move into error and a plenitude of hypotheses. Nevertheless, the Reformation did occur and, although there were definitely many positive developments in Scripture studies, there were many grave difficulties that can be referred back to the Reformation as a cause and principle.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw more developed approaches to Pentateuchal criticism in the latter part of the period which began with much confusion and wild speculations where Pentateuchal criticism was concerned[7]. Hobbes (+1679), a Deistic philosopher, and Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher, used internal evidence from the text to deny Mosaic authorship[8]. Spinoza is considered one of the fathers of modern Biblical criticism[9].

The GWDT started to take shape in the early 18th century when Witter in 1711 was the first to forward the usage of the different names of God, doublets and stylistic considerations to support the hypothesis that Moses compiled the Pentateuch from earlier traditions[10]. Jean Astruc, a French physician, used the same criteria to argue for different sources in Genesis[11] (what the particular the criteria that comprises the GWDT will be discussed later). Astruc divided Genesis into columns that corresponded to the usage of different names for God in Genesis (YHWH and Elohim)[12]. This was the age of the Enlightenment when, partially due to the seemingly endless religious conflicts, reason become the one measure of the truth with a concomitant rejection of external authority especially ecclesial authority[13]. The rationalism that characterized the Enlightenment affected approaches to Biblical criticism. This meant that the Scriptures should be subject to exactly the same principles of study as any other text. Furthermore, the rejection of authority enshrined in the Enlightenment spilled over to the approach to Biblical criticism. There was “the feeling that such as investigation should be able to be pursued independently of ecclesiastical authority, religious dogmas, or church traditions of any sort”[14]. Eichhorn applied these principles when he took up Astruc’s work but rather than attempting to maintain Mosaic authorship, as did Astruc, he rejected Mosaic authorship[15]. Furthermore, Eichhorn included additional criteria such as differences in literary style and vocabulary as means to distinguish the sources[16]. There was an ensuing flurry of activity as many others expanded the beginning work of Astruc.

This activity led to a number of different hypotheses concerning Pentateuchal source criticism: Early Documentary Hypothesis, Fragmentary Hypothesis, Supplementary Hypothesis, and the New Documentary hypothesis[17]. The Early Documentary Hypothesis was held by Astruc, Eichhorn, and others. They restricted their theories to Genesis. It posited that the ‘author’ of Genesis simply put together a series of ‘documents’ that made up the book. A closer scrutiny of the Pentateuch suggested much smaller independent fragments that were places alongside each other without any internal connection which led to the Fragmentary Hypothesis forwarded by Vater among others. Ewald posited the Supplementary Hypothesis in which there exists a homogenous Elohist basic document as a core which is supplemented by “Yahwist passages”. The New Documentary Hypothesis (referred to in this paper as the GWDT) found its primordial and decisive formulation via von Graf and Wellhausen in the late 19th century. They combined parts of the Early Documentary Hypothesis and the Supplementary Hypothesis with additional ideas about further sources. Thus, rather than just the two sources posited earlier (Elohist (E) and Yahwist (J)), a Priestly (P) and Deuteronomist (D) were posited. Weiser summarizes Wellhausen’s contributions to the formulation of the GWDT thusly:

[Wellhausen] proved by means of comparison with the information in the rest of the Old Testament that the historical place of the ‘Mosaic law’ (P) is not at the beginning, but at the end of the development of the Old Testament religion, and that the Yahwist source must be considered to be the oldest document in the Pentateuch[18].
The dating of the different sources according to Wellhausen is J ninth century, E eighth century, D seventh century, and P fifth century. The GWDT continued to be developed over time by other exegetes.

In summary, there have always been certain questions concerning the author, date of composition, and other aspects of the Pentateuch and the Scriptures as a whole. The questions and challenges are remarkably similar across the centuries. Moreover, I find it especially interesting that the main challengers and their answers that veer farthest from the traditional understandings of the Pentateuch come from individuals (for the most part) that are outside of what would be considered orthodox Catholicism. Much of the criticism flowed from an underlying willful rejection of Church authority and focused on individual, rationalistic philosophical presuppositions. One wonders how this may have colored their conclusions.

Next time, we'll dig into the GWDT itself...

[1] Ibid.

[2] Harrison, 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bedouelle, Guy. The History of the Church. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2003, pg. 98.

[5] Luther, Martin. An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, 1520. April 8, 2007, .

[6] Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, # 12. “For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.”

[7] Robert and Feuillet, 81.

[8] Harrison, 9-10.

[9] Livingstone 544.

[10] Robert and Feuillet, 82; Weiser, The Old Testament: Its Formation and Development, New York: Association Press, 1961, pg. 75.

[11] Weiser, 75.

[12] Harrison ,13; Astruc actually divided Genesis into four columns of text using other criteria in addition to the names designating God.

[13] Livingstone, 191.

[14] Harrison, 13.

[15] Weiser, 75.

[16] Harrison, 14.

[17] Weiser, 75-77.

[18] Weiser, 77.

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